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Adam Bannister is a freelancer journalist who has held various editorial positions, including as editor of SHP's partner publication for security & fire safety, IFSEC Insider (formally IFSEC Global).
May 15, 2023

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‘I died twice’ – the story of a North Sea oil rig accident

‘I still feel like it happened to somebody else’, says James Ramsay ahead of his Safety & Health Expo ‘Survivor’s story’.

James Ramsay

Falling seven metres headfirst, dying twice and mistaking his parents for royalty – James Ramsay’s oil rig accident and subsequent recovery is quite the story.

James, who will recount his experiences at Safety & Health Expo in London this week, had been unloading a barrel on a North Sea oil platform when a crane knocked him off his feet, his hardhat falling off in the process.

The then 21-year-old had to be resuscitated twice on that day in 1998 – once on the rig, once in the helicopter airlifting him to hospital. Doctors gave him a 2% chance of survival.

James recalls a disorienting return to consciousness upon awaking from a nearly three-week induced coma. “Two people were sitting there who I didn’t recognize – it was my mum and dad. I asked if I had school today. They started crying – which I thought was quite strange as I didn’t know who they were.”

The scene took a surreal turn on one occasion when he mistook his parents for Princess Charles and Lady Diana. When other visitors routinely embraced his parents he surmised that “they must be something special”.

Remarkable recovery

Although the accident left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, his recovery has otherwise been remarkable. James had to relearn basic skills like reading, writing and talking.

He’s fulsome in praising the surgeons who rebuilt his face after “one side of my face was totally crushed. I’ve got the NHS to thank for looking like this”.

James, who says the recovery is an ongoing process, now works at his family’s Midlothian-based firm, RTR Scaffolding. Outside of work he enjoys running and doing Brazilian Jui Jitsu – “it is like human chess with no hitting to the head”, he says.

So astonishing is the story that when he gave a talk to NHS staff, one attendee told James: “Your fantasy writing is amazing – and I said, ‘that happened, that was me!’”.

Even James himself is sometimes incredulous that he is the story’s main protagonist. “On 8 July this year it will be 25 years since it happened, and I still feel like it happened to somebody else.”

Drop in the ocean

James says the driver of the crane that knocked him over wasn’t appropriately licensed.

Following an investigation a court handed the oil company, which James declines to identify, the maximum possible fine – but that only totalled £20,000. “And they were making £1.5 million a minute,” says James. “That was a big dent in their profits,” he adds sarcastically.

James says the oil company hired a 12-strong team of Queens Council (QC) lawyers – “the best” in the business, his own lawyer acknowledged.

Safety improvements

oil and gasExtracting a volatile, combustible substance from the ground in often harsh weather conditions, oil rigs present an extremely high risk working environment.

The logistical difficulty of reaching the nearest hospital elevates the risk further still. “I was 130 miles away from Aberdeen – and when you have an accident, the first five minutes is the most crucial,” points out James.

Although James believes the enormous tax revenues the industry generates for governments is a huge disincentive for tightening regulations, he acknowledges that there have been meaningful safety improvements since his accident.

The UK Health and Safety Executive reported no fatal injuries at offshore platforms within its jurisdiction in 2021 and four fatalities in the previous 10 years.

The worst oil rig disasters to date occurred earlier, many in the 1980s. The highest ever fatality rate, 167 deaths, resulted from multiple explosions on the Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform in 1998.

James says the introduction of Risk Assessment Method Statements (RAMS) in 2005 was a pivotal improvement. “If you do anything wrong and something happens, then you’re in breach of what you’ve just signed, which is a legal document.”

The father of three now conducts RAMS for RTR Scaffolding. “I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through,” he says.

‘No dress rehearsal’

James is also currently completing ominously named ‘survival’ training, now a prerequisite for working offshore, so he can deliver his talk to the offshore industry.

His near-death experience – “seeing my body just lying there like it’s going up to heaven” – has given James a healthy perspective on life. “I just treat life like there’s no dress rehearsal,” he says.

Minor ailments have also been put into a different perspective, he jokes: “When somebody phones me at half six in the morning and says ‘I can’t come in today, I’ve got a really sore head…’ Sore head? I’ll give you a sore head!”

James Ramsay will share his ‘Survivor’s story’ at SHE 2023 on Tuesday 16 May, taking place at ExCeL London.

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